Telling vs Showing: When is narrative exposition necessary?
Pithy answer: whenever I want it to be. What? I know, I know, "Show Don't Tell" is one of those fundamental "rules of writing" every novice has beaten into their skulls. Like most rules, once you understand the reason such guidance exists, then intentionally breaking it is NBD and often done for effect.
I write character-driven stories, which means a character learns and grows through a series of trials and events to achieve their goal(s). There are times the reader needs to know why the character is acting/reacting in a particular way, but showing that is a whole other story--literally. Thus, an expository summary (a short summary) is the best way to tell the reader what they need to know to understand the scene.
Here are three instances where I tend to tell not show:
- The Character isn't Learning, The Reader Is: If the character is in the throes of learning a lesson, then show the process. If the character is recalling an experience pertinent to the current challenge, then tell.
- Perception is Priority: Since I write in close third POV rather than omniscient POV, how a character perceives circumstances, history, people, or locations conveys a lot about the character. So, when I have the POV character tell the audience something, it's because the priority is on the character's perception of their situation.
- Memories Shape Characters: Those backstory infodumps we have to exorcize from our WiPs to keep pacing and linear storytelling, but we really, really, really need the reader to know what event from the past made the character the way they are in the current moment; those backstories get super-shortened into narrative exposition. Let me emphasize the important word again: short.
Admittedly, my style is to go overboard with narrative exposition during drafting because my priority is to get the story written, regardless of how craptastic that draft may be. Hey, I'm still figuring out the nitty-gritty of the character(s) during drafting; cut me some slack. Then, during edits, I shorten those infodumps. I also ask myself, can I turn this into a showing moment? Will showing be more impactful than telling? Sometimes, the answer is "yep, rewrite to show," and a new scene is born. Sometimes, the best answer is "delete, unnecessary to plot or character." Every once in a while, the narrative exposition stands as initially written. gasp.